Learning Environments: Physical Classrooms or Virtual Worlds

Learning Environments: Physical Classrooms or Virtual Worlds

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3534-9.ch007
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This chapter addresses changes in learning environments from primarily brick and mortar buildings to include online learning platforms, MOOCs, blended learning spaces, and virtual worlds. Learning management systems, virtual reality, and a plethora of technological tools have revolutionized education allowing schools and universities to offer distance courses and degrees entirely online and constructive learning experiences for students using innovative tools in creative spaces. Advantages and disadvantages of these various environments are discussed along with predictions for the future. Metamodern digital citizens may encounter rich learning experiences physically face-to-face or virtually through immersion in 3D simulated environments, requiring metaliteracy to communicate, collaborate, construct knowledge, and make sense of our rapidly changing world.
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“He who opens a school door, closes a prison”. ---Victor Hugo

Environments for learning in the past were only possible in physical buildings with learners occupying the same physical space. Opportunities for distance education increased toward the end of the 20th century and exploded with technological trends in the early 21st century including online content management platforms, video tools, and virtual reality. Physical classrooms, too, were impacted by technology with digital devices, numerous apps, computer programs, and gamification. Brick and mortar buildings were transformed to include computer labs, spaces designed with electrical outlets for charging devices everywhere, and makerspaces to bring both physical and digital hands-on learning tools into the hands of learners. Where once learning took place only in physical spaces, we have moved toward learning management systems housed entirely online, educational applications from Google, Apple and other big companies, and the ability to learn through collaboration in virtual worlds.

The transformation from physical rows of desks with a teacher at the front of a room to flexible spaces with sofas, interactive boards, and moveable furniture happened quickly. Learning now takes place in both physical spaces and virtual spaces as well as in combination due to the ability to connect globally at any given time. The balance of physical and virtual worlds is increasingly necessary and is a part of metamodern culture and metaliteracy. Understanding best uses of physical and virtual learning environments begins with a brief overview of the history of distance learning.



Distance education is believed to have begun in 1728 when Caleb Phillips advertised private correspondence courses in the Boston Gazette. “Almost 150 years later, in 1873, the first correspondence schools in the United States were founded, called The Society to Encourage Studies at Home” (Miller, 2014, para. 3). In the 20th century, radio and television further developed distance education, however; initially distance education was considered independent study through a one-to-one correspondence with a teacher or tutor. “This, older traditional view of the distance learner had its roots not in the classroom, but in the tutorial, the one-on-one relationship that the privileged student enjoyed with a tutor in the elite Ivy League colleges” (Moore, 2016, p. 3.)

For the past few decades, education has emphasized collaborative group learning, constructivism and connectivism; however, Moore reminds us of the importance of our unique individual learning journeys. After working in the field of distance education for thirty years, Moore (2016, p.4) says, “To close on an optimistic note, I will draw attention to what appears to be some kind of revival of interest in independent learning, freshly re-invented in the movement referred to as ‘personalized learning’”. This balance of learning sometimes with others and other times as an individual corresponds to a core foundation of metamodernism- the oscillation of opposites. Both types of learning are possible and desirable.

“Throughout the 1990s, educational institutions used a variety of both real-time and asynchronous online technologies, leading to rapid growth in distance learning universities” (Miller, 2014, para. 8). The use of live videoconferencing helped learners interact with other groups and educators across distance and continues today with faster connectivity and mobile devices.

The ability to balance the physical and virtual spaces in which we live, as well as the information we intake and produce in multiple formats, illustrates the term metaliteracy. The human brain is adapting to swinging between formats and worlds, the motion of fluctuation between realities. “Increasingly researchers and teachers in the sciences and the humanities are arguing for biliteracy, a term coined by Maryanne Wolf, neuroscientist and explicator of the physiological and cultural risks and benefits posed by our immersion in a digital world” (Seaboyer & Barnett, 2019, pp. 1-2).

Since the turn of the century, disruptive technology has placed digital devices in the hands of learners and educators scrambled to incorporate new tools into learning objectives in physical and digital modes toppling the traditional pedagogies. Opportunities for integrating technology into classrooms exploded with apps, flipped classrooms, computer coding, gamification, makerspaces and more.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Learning Management System: A software application for use in delivery and administration of educational content for online learning.

Avatar: A digital embodiment of a person often used to represent an online user in a computer environment.

Massive Open Online Course (MOOC): A course of study offered online to many people across distance usually at no cost.

Virtual Reality (VR): A computer generated simulation usually experienced with special equipment such as a head-mounted display helmet or haptic gloves.

Biliteracy: (Coined by Maryann Wolf) The ability to adapt to the speed of digital information alongside deep reading and critical thinking.

Augmented Reality (AR): An interactive layer of multimedia which can placed within a user’s real-world experience.

Immersive Learning: An experience where one feels completely surrounded, inside, and a part of a space designed for acquisition of knowledge or skills often through simulation or role-play.

Makerspace: A hands-on learning space in which students can design, create and invent with engineering and science as a foundation.

Gamification: An educational approach in which students are motivated through game elements such as points, badges, or quests.

Virtual World: A computer-generated simulation in which users are embodied as avatars with a sense of presence in a persistent, often user-created environment.

Distance Education: Education of learners (teachers and students working together) who are not located in the same geographical physical space.

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